His first ambitions, he has told us, were literary. He has also said that once he turned to history, his permanent inspiration became Auerbach’s Mimesis, the reconstruction by a literary scholar of the path to modern realism, from the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf, whose route included Ammianus, Gregory of Tours, Saint-Simon, historians and memorialists along with poets and novelists. Literature thus both preceded history in Ginzburg’s cursus, and has always thereafter lain adjacent to it. There is a long tradition of the practice of history as a branch of literature, but what this has usually meant is either a studied elegance (or unbridled flamboyance) of style – Gibbon or Michelet – closer to works of imagination than of record, or the quasi-reproduction of literary genres in the construction of narratives: for obvious reasons, epic and tragedy – Motley or Deutscher – more frequently than comedy or romance.
Perry Anderson reviews ‘Threads and Traces’ by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by Anne Tedeschi and John Tedeschi · LRB 26 April 2012 Mostly for the Auerbach reference and history as a branch of literature. From a lengthy book review.
For writers who have done Westerners the service of exploring, interpreting, and explicating haiku and the Zen practice that leads to the haiku moment, I suggest Jane Hirshfield, Robert Aitken, William Higginson, Penny Harter, Hasegawa Kai, Earl Miner, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder.
Haiku impressions Ann E. Michaels recommendations for Westerners on haiku
Bachelard, I realized, is correct. The contemplation of words themselves leads to reverie, to thinking about thinking, to making dreamlike concatenations that chug through the consciousness and lead to imagination. His example involves contemplations and imaginings about the genders of words and how they suggest all kinds of interweavings and reactions, but noun gender need not be the motivating inspiration. For me, etymology accomplishes the same ends.
Reverie Ann E. Michaels on Bachelard and reverie
In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard writes of reveries on words, then moves to reveries on reveries themselves, which brings him to books. Books (philosophy, fiction, and poetry books in particular) are, for Bachelard, a kind of dream made real. Books are places to dawdle and to dream as one reads, places in which the reader can interact with imagination: the reader’s imagination, not the author’s imagination. The author’s work, if it is great, tempts readers into reverie. For this reason, Bachelard says he likes to read his favorite books many times. Each reading produces new reverie.
Re-reading & reverie Ann E. Michaels on Bachelard, re-reading and reverie
Nussbaum credits this as a good way to live a life — both because it’s more personally fulfilling and because it leads to more accurate judgments. “It is somehow a key to all the rest,” Nussbaum argues, “that a willingness to surrender invincibility, to take a posture of agency that is porous and susceptible of influence, is of the highest importance in getting an accurate perception of particular things in the world.” She follows Aristotle who believed that the way to arrive at good judgments was to circle in on the truth: to revise old views in light of new information while striving to preserve “the greatest number and the most basic” of the original beliefs. Nussbaum calls the end point (or resting point) of this process the state of “perceptive equilibrium.”
Nussbaum argues that literature is particularly good at driving us towards perceptive equilibrium. Literature, she writes, “searches for patterns of possibility — of choice, and circumstance, and the interaction between choice and circumstance – that turn up in human lives with such a persistence that they must be regarded as our possibilities.” Put another way, literature presents us with the options by which we might live our own lives — and it teaches us to go beyond superficial judgments in order to try and imagine the interior lives of other people.
The Millions : The Moral Value of Surprise: Lessons from Literature for a Fracturing Country Nussbaum on literature and morality
But metaphors can be very powerful. And after you create them you cannot always maintain your exclusive ownership. Ideas cannot be reigned in like horses or cached like gold. Once loosed in the world, a metaphor can float like air. Anyone can inhale it, make it their own. But when they exhale, you may not recognize the aroma. Yet, there is nothing you can do it about it. You may still have your metaphor, and maybe you were the first one to ever have it. But now others have it as well, and it is not exactly the same metaphor as you understand it.
Most Holy Metaphor On religion, especially monotheistic religion, as metaphor.
Here is something else I know: the power of literature to “renew a sense of purpose in our lives” gets killed in literature classrooms — unintentionally, no doubt, but killed nonetheless.
This isn’t an indictment. Writer Richard Ford found himself teaching literature as a graduate assistant in 1969 and realized, “What seemed worthwhile to teach was what I felt about literature … [literature] had mystery, denseness, authority, connectedness, closure, resolution, perception, variety, magnitude — value in other words … Literature appealed to me. But I had no idea how to teach its appealing qualities, how to find and impart the origins of what I felt.” This is a difficult question.
With the guidance of his mentor, Ford discovered access to these origins through the formal aspects of literature, its elements. He discovered a way in by asking, What formal feature of any given text is most significant? Too often — and I have been complicit — students are not pushed beyond this noticing of formal features. More than a decade of pressure from the paradoxically-named No Child Left Behind legislation has only exacerbated the problem by privileging the easily quantifiable, the standard. Derrick Jensen argues that the process of standardization is one of turning the living into the dead. The standard for a fish, he points out, is a fish stick. What is the standard for a novel … Sparknotes? Cliff Notes?
Rethinking the Literature Classroom | Full Stop On teaching literature; includes discussion of a useful looking exercise.
Many had an impressive skill set. Some seemed to lack the conceptual basis beyond those skills. Without that, it seemed that acquiring new skills and applying them was more difficult. Just knowing how to do something without understanding the why, how, what, and when of that skill leads to a disjointed view of a skill. This lack of understanding also leads to a lack of how this skill was acquired, for what purposes, for what time sensitive project, and how it fits into a particular time and space of one’s career.
Many talk about being flexible as in being able to dabble here and there with a certain amount of success. I would contend that being flexible is being able to recognize the archeology of a skill. By archeology of a skill, I mean how that skill fits into a particular time and space, how the skill is temporary yet essential at that time and for that space (as in circumstances of the institution). With this knowledge, one can develop a skill and mold it to the changing aspects of the job. That in itself is a skill that also requires critical thinking.
Mentoring, Volunteering, Hosting…Oh My! Knowing ‘the archaeology of a skill’ is a critical skill in itself.
As soon as one stops searching for knowledge, or if one imagines that it need not be creatively sought in the depths of the human spirit but can be assembled extensively by collecting and classifying facts, everything is irrevocably and forever lost, lost for learning soon vanishes so far out of the picture that it even leaves language behind like an empty pod, and lost for the state as well.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, as cited in Bivens-Tatum p. 66
Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Duluth MN: Library Juice Press, 2012. Print.
I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.
But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.
And that is also art.
A different kind of difficult book « annemichael